Leopold W. Stach, 16 June 1914-12 February 1998
As we commemorate the life of Leo Stach, we are reminded that this great country, Australia, is indebted to the many generations of migrants who contributed to the nation’s wealth and prosperity.
A gifted child, Leo was born in Melbourne to a first generation Australian family of German extraction at a time when the European conflict spread, creating economic hardship for all. When the Great War ended and, under the watchful eyes of his mother and a doting Aunt Hilda, Leo excelled at school, winning scholarships as his academic successes multiplied.
He was a lonely child, neglecting sports in favour of his studies, accepting that he would be unable to attend high school or university without the benefit of scholarships. It was these difficult times that moulded Leo’s appreciation for security, often in later life misinterpreted by his peers as meanness. For Leo, a penny was a penny and he decided at an early age to ensure that he would never be without again.
Leo’s love for geology became apparent in his early teens when he would wander around rocky outcrops alone, learning to unlock the secrets the timeless formations held underfoot. His youthful but advanced knowledge of geology resulted in many achievements. Some rocks he discovered during one of his many weekend excursions into the countryside, peddling his way tirelessly through the hills, were named after him. Whilst only 16, Leo was admitted into the prestigious Royal Society of Victoria.
Further scholarships took the diligent student through university, and he gained his Masters in Geology in record time. Recruited by Australian oil interests, Leo suddenly found himself in Papua assisting with the first oil drilling programs ever to be undertaken there. This was practical experience in difficult terrain. Bitter memories of those times remained with Leo throughout his life.
Europe had again exploded into war under Hitler. Leo’s workplace in the jungle became a living hell as he fought to prove his loyalty to Australia. Then the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour. Leo was evacuated back to Australia, where he remained until recruited by General Douglas MacArthur to accompany American intelligence teams during the long battle through the West Pacific and on to Japan.
It was during this time that Leo Stach excelled, serving the Allied Forces with distinction. Unarmed due to his civilian status, Leo bravely waded ashore from US landing craft to be among the first hundreds to land, under heavy enemy fire, on the beaches of Balikpapan in Indonesian Borneo.
On patrol in the New Guinea highlands, he came under aerial attack when his survey teams were strafed. He assisted in the carving of airfields and roads through the treacherous jungles. He continued to work tirelessly as a member of General MacArthur’s team, spending years in the most difficult conditions, often in extreme danger, collecting and collating landing intelligence.
In his last days, Leo expressed sadness that his contributions were still to be recognized by the United States and Australian governments. But he never boasted of his war exploits and, even in his twilight years, recounted his incredible story with humility. Leo died an unsung hero.
Hopefully, one day, the Australian and American governments will recognize Leo for his war effort, which undoubtedly contributed to saving many Allied lives. His bravery in storming ashore under fire unarmed to obtain first hand intelligence lessened casualty figures as the landings continued. Leo’s dedication and expertise was not lost on General MacArthur. The American Forces took him to Tokyo, where he played a pivotal role in helping rehabilitate the country’s devastated oil industry.
During the Occupation period, Leo fell in love with his late wife, Aki and they raised a family together. Soon they were blessed with three children, William, George and Sue. During this time Leo became interested in stock markets and ardently pursued investments on the New York Exchange and then in Australia.
Leo was engaged by the United Nations, which resulted in his moving to Taiwan, where he firmly placed his stamp on the emerging oil and gas industry. At the same time he became active in the Australian oil industry; he pegged out his own exploration lease in Torquay and, during occasional leave breaks from the Orient, advised Western Australian oil interests.
As his children grew, Leo decided to relocate his family to Melbourne, after which he was again engaged by the United Nations to assist with the development of the oil and gas industry throughout Asia. He was appointed Chief of Mineral Resources with the United Nations Development Program. Leo’s contribution was recognized, his works published on no fewer than 50 occasions as the accolades continued to flow.
But many of Leo Stach’s achievements remain unknown. In 1974 he was secretly flown into Saigon by the American Forces to examine South Vietnam’s oil and gas potential. Most of Leo’s earlier work remains locked in American military archives. His records show that Japan’s most senior Shogun held Leo in high esteem. His communications with the famed novelist James A Michener and the photographs of our lightly-built Australian hero standing beside General Douglas MacArthur on the beaches of Balikpapan speak silently of his colourful life.
When I first met Leo Stach, evidence of the man I would grow to understand was far from apparent in the stooped, fragile frame that shuffled over, with outstretched hand, to greet me. My immediate concern was that there would be insufficient time to complete our interviews before he finally surrendered to the debilitating emphysema that so cruelly impeded his capacity to speak for any length of time. Obviously I had a great deal to learn about this man, whose sense of determination had carried him from the desperation of being poor and physically feeble, to outstanding success and the satisfaction of great achievement.
Leo was keen to assist others wishing to undertake studies similar to his. During his last years he provided funds for institutions specialising in earth science, geology and palaeontology studies. He was interested to support students who achieved excellent grades but had limited funds to educate themselves, remembering how difficult and frustrating his own life was as a struggling student. In 1994 he established the Leo Stach Memorial Scholarship at the University of Melbourne. The Institut Teknologi Bandung, in Indonesia, the Chiang Mai University in Thailand, and the Prince of Songkla University in Thailand also benefited from his grants.
Leo Stach passed away on 12 February 1998, before his story was in print. At his bedside, not hours before he died, I gave him my undertaking that I would complete this biography so that at least in part, his achievements would be documented and the story of his exploits recorded for his peers and heirs to read. This was the mixture of the man: so humble in the telling of his story, and yet so yearning for recognition of his deeds.
His passing will be remembered as the end of an Australian pioneering era.
Kerry B. Collison